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Some Words Have A Reputation To Live Up To

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By Anatoly Liberman

It is not fortuitous that many words like puzzle, conundrum, and quiz are themselves puzzles from an etymological point of view. They arose as slang, sometimes as student slang (hence, for instance, the pseudo-Latin ending in conundrum), and insofar as we do not know the circumstances in which they were coined, our chances of discovering their origin is low. Every word looks like some other similar word in the same or another language, so that more or less plausible hypotheses about their history are easy to come by. But a good etymology is based on facts, rather than being an exercise in ingenuity. Unfortunately, hard evidence is absent when it comes to the early stages in the life of the noun charade.

Like quiz, puzzle, and conundrum, charade appeared in literary texts late. The great French dictionary did not list it even in 1798. But it had been known by that time, for it even reached England by 1776, though spelled with -rr- (charrade). Most of us associate charade with guessing a word from clues given for each syllable. (For example, question: What is that great protection that is made up of a sheep, though not quite a sheep, and a fraction thereof? Answer: rampart, that is, ram, which is “not quite a sheep,” plus part. Anyone can dress the selfsame animal sparsely, just enough to cover one leg, and produce rampant along the same lines.) But earlier, charades, rather than charade, enjoyed popularity, for the syllables were acted, performed like pantomimes, and the game gave rise to social events, as described in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Our evidence is not sufficient to decide whether the word charade, when it came into being, designated the name of a verbal game or of a “theatrical,” and, as Plato (and, apparently, Socrates before him) realized, the origin of a word cannot be found unless we know the nature of the thing.

Perhaps the most tempting etymology of charade was offered in 1881. Spanish charro is the designation of a peasant in general and from the Salamanca region in particular; charrada is the name of a local dance and, by extension, of low class behavior. The University of Salamanca was famous, so that the word could have spread to the rest of the Romance world from there and later acquired a more general meaning (“performance”). Skeat, in the entry charade in his dictionary, went so far as to compare charro with Engl. churl. But it has been shown that charade is a genuine French, not even a Provencal, let alone Spanish, word (dictionaries often assert its southern origin, but this statement should be taken critically), and at no time have charades been a “churlish” pastime. Nor is the spelling with two r’s original.

Another old hypothesis (it precedes the one mentioned above by two years) derives charade from character “letter; secret sign” (I will skip phonetic details, showing how karatter, from karakter, allegedly developed into French charade.) Medieval Latin caragius “magician” added weight to this reconstruction. Although supported by some eminent modern scholars, it is not fully convincing, because it presupposes the word’s great antiquity, though, as we remember, its appearance in texts does not predate the end of the 18th century, and its latent existence in rural dialects for hundreds of years is unlikely: from the start, charade seems to have been connected with the higher echelons of culture. Once again reference to churls should be rejected. To be sure, writing was indissoluble from mystery in the early Middle Ages, but this fact is of little relevance here, for nothing points to the fact that the initial meaning of charade was “riddle.” As could be expected, charade has been compared with the Italian verb ciarlare “chatter,” but, as long as the idea of the connection remains unexplained (charades are not conversations, however informal), this comparison does not go far. Even more baffling is the reference to Medieval Latin carrada “wagon” (the root of carrada is easily recognizable in car, carriage, carousel, and so forth) and to the name of the inventor of the game. (Was there a Mr. Charade? Any information on him would be welcome). To complicate matters, the structure of charade is unclear: it is far from obvious that -ade in it is a suffix. The etymology tracing charade to character does without a suffix.

The purpose of this blog is not only to tell entertaining stories about the derivation of words (it is indeed its main goal) but also to show how etymologists work and why they sometimes find themselves in facing a dead end (blind alley or cul-de-sac, if you prefer). Etymology has made great advances, and as a result of its progress, more and more words are now marked as being “of unknown origin.” Surely, it is better to be told that charade is French (not a trivial conclusion, by the way), that it emerged in books late, and that we do not know where it came from, than to be palmed off with a specious reference to a mythic inventor, the probably unrelated verb ciarlare, and the like. However, it is important to know what has been said on the subject, in order not to continue wallowing in other people’s folly and to be on one’s guard when coming up with tempting conjectures. One day the origin of charade may be discovered, but this joyful event will happen only if historians succeed in unearthing some new facts about the introduction of the game. Linguists have done what they could and need not bother.

Here is a last warning. Beware of artful dodging in even some of our best dictionaries. In Webster’s International, 1st edition, charade is said to be of uncertain etymology. This echoes the OED’s “of doubtful etymology”; the entry lists a few hypotheses without taking sides; the volume with charade appeared in 1889. Webster’s Second preferred “of obscure, perhaps imitative origin”; apparently, the editors believed in a connection between charade and ciarlare. Finally in Webster’s Third, the last there is, we read: “of imitative origin” (perhaps has disappeared). Uncertain, doubtful, and obscure are interchangeable synonyms in this context, and we will never know how the seemingly most appropriate one happened to be chosen. It would also be rash to assume that perhaps was expunged because some research had shown that charade is indeed sound imitative. These are editorial, not scholarly games.

Time and again charade has been compared with charlatan. Charlatan will be the subject of my first April post.


Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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